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Romney’s Making the Right Play in Iowa

Jeff Zeleny’s weekend story about how Mitt Romney’s campaign will exert more rather than less effort in Iowa deserves your attention. It reflects what is perhaps the most important strategic decision that any Republican candidate will make this year.

Mr. Romney’s campaign had hedged its bets and carefully managed expectations in Iowa previously. Its reasons for doing so were understandable. We will be conducting a more quantitative look at the effects of Iowa on the remaining nominating states as we get closer to the caucuses there. But — spoiler — the takeaway is that expectations often do determine the so-called bounce that candidates take away from the state. In fact, they can matter as much as the results of the caucuses themselves. When Gary Hart finished second in the Iowa caucuses in 1984 — a distant second, with 17 percent of the vote to Walter Mondale’s 49 percent — he nevertheless got a huge bounce out of the state as expectations and polls had pointed to a much worse finish. Then Mr. Hart went on to win New Hampshire and give Mr. Mondale a serious challenge for the Democratic nomination.

However, the dynamics of this particular campaign are such that expectations-setting can only be a secondary concern for Mr. Romney. The upside of possibly winning Iowa is too high for Mr. Romney to pass up, and the risks of giving a free pass to another candidate are too great.

The big problem with losing Iowa is that if you don’t win it, someone else will. Consider what would happen if any of the other six Republican candidates who are competing seriously in the state won it instead.

Rick Perry. Mr. Perry’s campaign, if it has had its rough moments recently, remains among the best-financed and the most professionally run, and it is poised to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Romney throughout the nominating fight. A victory in Iowa would give Mr. Perry a huge boost, particularly since expectations for his campaign are now fairly low. Although Mr. Romney would still probably win New Hampshire — a Southern populist like Mr. Perry faces a daunting battle in the state — South Carolina, Florida and beyond would be toss-ups, with the campaign perhaps continuing for several months.

Newt Gingrich. Republican voters seem to want in their hearts to vote for Mr. Gingrich — they see him as the strongest leader, the best  qualified, and the closest to them on the issues. But they see Mr. Romney as considerably more likely to defeat Barack Obama.

The thing about electability, however, is that nothing makes you look more electable than actually winning an election. Winning Iowa would remove many of the doubts about Mr. Gingrich’s viability and staying power and provide him with a fundraising boost that his campaign badly needs.

Win Iowa, and there is a real possibility that Mr. Gingrich is the Republican nominee. He is a reasonably strong candidate for Florida and South Carolina. His polling has been all over the map in New Hampshire, meanwhile, but one recent survey puts him quite close to Mr. Romney in the state, and New Hampshire has long had a thing for more intellectually-minded candidates (like Paul Tsongas or Mr. Hart) and for curmudgeonly conservatives (like Pat Buchanan).

Ron Paul. My view is that Mr. Paul’s policy positions are too perpendicular to that of most Republican voters to give him much of a shot at winning the party nomination. Some 50 percent of Republican voters, in the most recent CNN survey, said they’d be displeased or upset if Mr. Paul was their candidate.

Mr. Paul, however, can affect the dynamics of the field and perhaps win a few states with 20 or 25 percent of the vote until it is winnowed down. In particular, he is the only Republican candidate apart from Mr. Romney (and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who is not competing in Iowa) to overachieve his national numbers in polls of New Hampshire. A one-two punch of winning Iowa and New Hampshire is not impossible for Mr. Paul, and it is hard to know where Mr. Romney might wind up if the field were scrambled in this way.

Herman Cain. Mr. Cain’s polling numbers are now on a downward trajectory. But, were he to come back and win Iowa, it would be a huge story, particularly given how skeptical the news media has been about his chances. Mr. Cain has also polled fairly strongly in Florida, a state that could be critical to Mr. Romney’s chances to win the nomination. I don’t know that winning Iowa would be enough to put Mr. Cain on an even footing with Mr. Romney, but Mr. Cain is a dynamic enough figure that it could make things much messier for him.

Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Finally, we get to two candidates who poll much better in Iowa than anywhere else and might prove to be one-state wonders even if they won the state. Mr. Romney’s campaign could certainly tolerate a victory by either of these candidates, especially if it finished second. Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, these two candidates are polling at just 4 percent and 6 percent respectively in the most recent surveys of the state.

So basically, you have two candidates (Mr. Perry and Mr. Gingrich) who might be at even odds to win the nomination if they won Iowa, two others (Mr. Paul and Mr. Cain) who poll well enough in key early states to give Mr. Romney major headaches, and two more (Mr. Santorum and Mrs. Bachmann) who are more benign to Mr. Romney — but perhaps too benign to win Iowa in the first place. Keep in mind, also, that if one of the more conservative candidates wins Iowa, some of the others are likely to drop out, allowing the survivors to consolidate conservative and Tea Party support. Mr. Romney would be in some real danger.

Conversely, if Mr. Romney were to win Iowa himself, a win in New Hampshire would almost certainly follow. Although primary voters usually like to pack a few surprises along the way, Mr. Romney would be in a commanding position. Perhaps, instead of having a 50 or 60 percent chance of winning the nomination as under the previous scenario, his odds would be as high as 95 percent. That’s too big a difference for Mr. Romney’s campaign to pass upon.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.